Virtual reality and simulations created for animals could help scientists in studying animal behaviour using new research methods. Even though researchers can never be sure on how animals perceive the world, the environment, and therefore also the simulation of it, a virtual environment provides a certain amount of control and the possibility to exclude (potentially) influential variables.
An example of how virtual reality helps in animal behaviour research is recently published in the Science journal. At Princeton University, researchers have developed a digital application projected into a fish tank that simulates prey for the bluegill sunfish.
In this so called “game” the red dots (representing prey) moved in different ways and it was found that they were less likely attacked by the bluegill sunfish if they moved in group formation. This experiment provided the researchers with more control over the parameters and the coding enabled random formation and movement of the dots. New plans include the development of a 3D environment.
Other examples of digital simulations for studying animal behaviour include cockroaches moving in simulated forests, male moths tempted by virtual female olfactory cues, mice navigating in a virtual maze, and zebrafish chasing virtual objects.
The use of virtual reality and digital simulations for animal behaviour research brings up two main questions for me:
– How do these animals perceive their environment and is this somehow comparable with their perception of reality?
– And is there any reason for the connection of this experience for the animal with ‘play’ or (video) ‘games’ as exemplified in this BBC message or questioned in this article?
I think we should be very careful in connecting concepts such as ‘reality’ or ‘play’ to these experiments, since drawing conclusions based on superficial anthropomorphic statements, such as fish playing video games, could prevent us from actually acquiring a closer understanding of the animal.
This project, carried out by the Utrecht School of the Arts in collaboration with Wageningen University in the Netherlands, researched the complex relationships between pigs and humans through game design. The purpose of this game was to provide pigs with their natural need to play, experience the cognitive capabilities of both human and pig, and facilitate new relations between species. Their next goal is to actually realize the project. The video in this post shows how the game works.
What makes this research project interesting to me is the collaboration between the research areas: game design, animal welfare, and philosophy. Next to this the social purpose to enrich the lives of the pigs through play and thereby improve the animal welfare is a very positive and valuable approach in my opinion. It would be interesting to get a broader understanding of the experience of the animals involved in this form of play and how the interaction with human beings takes influences their lives.
(video: www.playingwithpigs.nl, 2012)
One of the first projects I came across during my graduation research is the TOUCH project: ‘Bringing new Technology to Orangutans for Understanding and Communicating cross-species for greater Harmony‘. This project, carried through by School of Design of the Hong Kong Polytechnic University by Dr. Hanna Wirman, researches the possibilities for facilitating in cross-species interaction and enrichment for orangutans through digital games.
The focus of this project is centered around both human and orangutan and the potential for interaction between these two species. The researchers are aiming for the development of digital games in which humans might be defeated by orangutans through for example visual or short term memory games.
The blog that evolved around the TOUCH project, LUDUS ANIMALIS provides insights and updates on the research as well as an interesting collection of sources on animals, play and a few other animal computer interaction projects.